Britain Passes Reform of House of Lords, But Now Stands in Limbo

Originally this article was intended to be an overview of the House of Commons vote to push through historic changes to the British Parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, from a largely appointed body to a largely elected body, highlighting my hopes that the bill would be passed. A vote was scheduled Tuesday night on the House of Lords Reform Bill at 2200 British standard time, but no more than 2 hours after I sent my article off for publishing at around 1700 BST the BBC broke the news that the government had decided to drop plans to hold the vote amidst internal party opposition. So what is all the fuss about? 

The House of Lords was established in the 14th century as the upper house of government within the United Kingdom’s bicameral legislature. The function of which was to scrutinize and amend parliamentary bills proposed by the lower house, the House of Commons, as well as serve a judicial role as a court of last resort. Originally its membership was drawn from the upper classes of British society, members of the aristocracy and the church. Membership was a life privilege and often passed on hereditarily following the rules of male primogeniture.

Today the House of Lords still serves its original purpose of scrutinizing and amending parliamentary bills, but gone is its judicial role and it does not have the power to reject proposals by the lower house. Membership is comprised of 826 members, known as “peers,” who are ceremonially appointed to their position by the queen on advice of the prime minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Peers are divided into Lords Spiritual and Lords Temporal. The former are 26 bishops of the Church of England appointed on the merit of their ecclesiastical connection. The remaining Lords Temporal are secular appointments, usually appointed according to political lines (usually in favor of the political party that is in power) and are divided into “life peers” or “hereditary peers.” Since the House of Lords Act of 1999 hereditary peers were abolished except for 92 individuals who were permitted to remain. The rest are appointed on a life basis with their right to sit in the House of Lords not passing onto their children. 

Membership into the House of Lords is not limited to only British citizens as any Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland citizen over the age of 21 may become a peer, and appointment is usually given to a wide range of individuals, appointed on the basis that their knowledge, experience and wisdom would benefit the British legislature. Many former prominent British politicians are granted peerage to sit on the House of Lords upon their retirement as reward for good service, such as form Labour Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott and form Conservative Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher.

The current Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition backed reforms would see drastic changes including:

Membership reduced from 826 to 450

80% of members to be elected by public vote

Elected members to be representative of different regions of the UK

20% of members to be still elected by the Appointments Commission, on a non-party basis.

Abolishment of life and hereditary peerage, to be replace by a fixed 15 year non-renewable term

A reduced number of bishops (Lords Spiritual) from 26 to 12

Peers to no longer hold the title of Lord or Baronesses, though the house will still be named House of Lords

Have all reforms implemented by the year 2025 

Overall I’m in support of the bill. If the United Kingdom truly wishes to have a democratic government, the era of life-long and hereditary privileges must be ended. That is not to say that I support the abolition of the monarchy, though. I am however concerned about the number of elected peers. We already vote for our MPs to sit in the House of Commons and the biggest weakness of the public vote system and democracy as a whole is that it can be swayed by populist movements and we end up with the situation that the United Kingdom finds itself in today – full of lackluster and uninspiring politicians that nobody really likes, but people voted for them on the basis that they were the not as bad as the other guy. 

In my opinion it would be better if a larger number of peers were appointed by the Appointments Commission to counter this problem, such as a 50/50 split, though I am glad that appointments will no longer be made based on political party affiliation.

But not everyone is happy about the reforms. The Guardian and the Telegraph reported last week that some 100 Tory backbenchers would go against their own party and vote against the bill’s reforms, which is to be expected considering the ultra-conservative and traditionalist attitudes of many Tory backbenchers. Many feel that it is an inappropriate time to push through such drastic legislation during global economic crisis. However, what came as a huge surprise was Labour's announcement that they plan to oppose the bill. Despite being the self-proclaimed champion and a huge supporter of reforming the House of Lords, Labour stated that it plans to oppose the bill as is does not feel the 10 days allocated debate time for the implementation of the bill, if passed, was sufficient. 

First Secretary of State and Foreign Secretary William Hague responded to criticisms from his own Conservative Party by saying: "Even in the Second World War, at the height of some of the greatest crises in the history of this country, legislation was passed affecting some of the issues of the future." 

In response to Labour's criticism he claims that philosophically they support the bill and that their “foot-dragging” was simply opportunistic “opposition for the sake of opposition.” Normally I don’t find myself agreeing with Hague, but I agree with him and personally feel that Labour wanted to stall the bill in the hopes that they will win the next general election and then push through their own bill for reform and take the credit for the reforms.

After the announcement that the vote had been dropped the Conservative Party went into chaos as pro and anti-reform MPs went into a power struggle. Reports of a pub "scuffle" between opposing conservative MPs have surfaced and the Prime Minister David Cameron leading the loyalist faction reportedly confronted the rebel’s leader Jesse Norman, calling his dissenting actions "disgraceful." Coalition Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg, like all of his party, is fully behind the reform bill and when asked by the media whether he blamed the Tories or Labour for the failure of the vote he responded with: “A plaque on both their houses.” He also threatened David Cameron that he needs to get his party in line, because if the bill failed it could very well have been the end of the coalition Government, which would have resulted in a snap election.

In order to save face and the bill itself David Cameron agreed a last minute compromise by dropping the "programme implementation" provision from the vote that Labour had based its opposition on and convinced the Liberal Democrats to accept it as the only way the vote was going to be done. Following this, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband instructed his MPs to support the bill and the vote for the reform bill was resurrected (but in principle only). When it went for the second reading last night, the vote resulted in 338 majority in favor of the bill, despite 91 Tory MPs (nearly 30%) and 26 Labour MPs voting against the bill. So what does this all mean? 

Since the "programme implementation" provision was dropped from the bill there is no timetable for its implementation. Meaning that the vote is in favor of the reforms itself but a separate vote will now need to be made in order to agree on how and when the reforms will take place. Whilst reforms have now been approved, they are effectively in limbo. The government announced that the vote on the "programme implementation" will take place sometime this autumn, but there is nothing binding the government to this and until this is agreed upon the bill can’t be passed onto the House of Lords itself in order to be made into law (which is a whole other can of worms).

Long-winded speeches and debates are now expected to take place, but Westminster finds itself in a precarious situation. The Liberal Democrats are happy with the result that a step has been made towards reform, but they will now be gearing up to fight implementation issues with Labour. 

Labour is very happy with itself right now, it’s gotten what it wanted and is now portraying themselves as the savior of the bill. The Conservative party though has a lot of housekeeping to do. With nearly one third of its members going against the party leadership, questions have been raised about David Cameron’s ability to lead the party, reconcile difference between the "Old Tories" and his "Notting Hill Set," as well as function as prime minister. If David Cameron is not able to sort out his own house and create a party consensus in time for the proposed autumn vote it could spell the end of his leadership. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Steven Bywater

Steven Bywater is an alumni of the University of Leeds and Nankai University with a background in international marketing and Asian studies. Based in London, he works as a marketing professional on the commerical side for the European and African operations of one of China's largest state media agencies. Of English, Dutch-Afrikaans and Taiwanese-Chinese heritage, Steven has traveled the world and worked across Asia, Australia and Europe. His current projects includes bringing Chinese media in line with internationally recognised circulation auditing procedures and to develop both print and digital Chinese media products for overseas markets.

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